Is Spiritism Condemned in the Bible?                       

Part 1

 

Bible Versions cited: American Standard Version (ASV); Bible in Basic English (BBE); Darby Bible (DBY); Douay-Rheims (DRA); King James Version (KJV); New King James Version (NKJ);  Revised Standard Version (RSV); New Revised Standard Version (NRS); Revised English Bible (REB); New American Bible (NAB); New American Standard (NAS, NAU [1995]);  New International Version (NIV, NIB [British version]); New Jerusalem Bible (NJB); and the New Living Translation (NLT).

 

The Meaning and Usage of the Term "Spiritism"

 

     The usage of the term “spiritism” to denote “consulting the dead” has its provenance in the spiritist movement of the mid-eighteen hundreds in the United States and Great Britain.  The popular nomenclature for the movement was “spiritualism.”  This term designated gatherings in which persons sat around a table or in a group, sometimes holding hands in a chain-like link, in order to communicate with the deceased.  These gatherings became popularly known as “séances,” a French term meaning “sittings,” whose use in French is usually relegated to “sittings” for the purpose of a scientific lecture or the professional gatherings of a conference.

       During the time period 1850–70, “American spiritualism” played a major role in defining for the American public the practice of spiritualism as group séances held for the purpose of contacting deceased relatives, friends, and famous personages through trance mediums.  The rise of spiritualism in America is usually credited to the role of two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox who claimed to possess mediumistic powers for communicating with spirits.  People who regularly attended séances were known as “spiritists,” i.e., those who practiced spiritualism.  Those through whom the spirits communicated were known as “mediums.”  A part of the scientific community investigated the activities of mediums during séances to determine whether the source of the phenomena was of human origin or otherwise.  Such séances sometimes had a religious overtone in the way they were conducted and in the belief that séances demonstrated survival after physical death whereby the human spirits who had “crossed over” after physical death related through mediums what the beyond was like, preparing their listeners for what was in store for them.  Occasionally the messages from the alleged spirits touched on heaven, God, Christ, hell, Satan, and other realities associated with religion and faith.  But more often than not, the messages were of a mundane nature.

     The popular term “spiritualism” is used interchangeably with the term “spiritism.” This, however, is misleading since the term “spiritualism” was originally intended to denote a nineteenth-century philosophical school of thought that defined reality in terms of spirit as opposed to materialism.  Spiritism, however, is the more precise term than what is usually suggested by

the word spiritualism, since the interest lies in “spirits” as the objects of preference.

     The term “spiritism” is usually understood within its popular context of communicating with the dead.  The suffix -ism on the English term “spirit” relates to contexts that denote spirit beings “in action” or to the belief that spirits “act upon” or “affect” human beings in some tangible manner.

       Encyclopedias and lexicons of religion and theology often base definitions of spiritism on the popular understanding of it.  The New Catholic Encyclopedia states:

 

Belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the departed, and the practice of attempting such communication, usually with the help of some person (a medium) regarded as gifted to act as an intermediary with the spirit world (13.576).

 

The spiritism movement of the late eighteen hundreds reemerged in the New Age movement of contemporary popular culture as “channeling.”  Jon Klimo (Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources) observes this reemergence:

 

Except for the present, there has never been as rich a period of channeling activity and interest in it as occurred during the mid-nineteenth century under the name Spiritualism (usually termed Spiritism in Europe).  What we now call channeling was called mediumship during the Spiritualist era, and channels were called mediums (p. 95).

 

Likewise, Gerald A. Larue (“Channeling – Ancient and Modern,” in idem, The Supernatural, the Occult and the Bible [Buffalo: Prometheus, 1990] 31–42), similarly states, “Present-day channeling is a variation of mediumship.  Channelers’ most recent predecessors were spiritualists who conjured up spirits of dead relatives or friends for their clients” (p. 33). 

     English Bibles that appeared subsequent to the American and British popular spiritism movement of the mid to late 1800s used terms related to spiritism.  The terms “spiritist” and “medium” appear in eight mainline English versions: RSV (1952), NAB (1970), NAS (1977), NRS (1979), NKJ (1982), NIV (1984), NIB (1984), and NAU (1995).  The necromancer in 1 Samuel 28 who conjures the spirit of the deceased Samuel is called “a medium” in recent versions (see 1 Sam 28:7 in the NIV, NAS, NAU, RSV, NAB, NRS, and NKJ) whereas in older versions she is called “a woman with a familiar spirit” (see 1 Sam 28:7 in the KJV, ASV, DRA, DBY, and BBE).

     The occult Hebrew terms ob and yiddeoni are translated in English versions as either  practitioners, “spiritist” and “medium” (see Deut 18:11 in the NIV, NIB, NAS, NAU, RSV, NRS, and NKJ), or entities, “ghosts” and “spirits” (see Deut 18:11 in the NRS, NAB, BBE, and REB).  This uncertainty in translation is because of an uncertain etymology for ob and an unclear reference for yiddeoni (literally, "knowing ones," either the practitioner who "knows" how to communicate with spirits or the "knowing" spirits themselves).  Some versions use both “medium” (or “wizard”) and “spirit” in the same verse (see Deut 18:11 in the NJB, DBY, KJV, and ASV).  The usage of these English terms in modern Bibles for practices that are an abomination to God can influence thinking about the characterization of spiritism.  Thus, “consulting the spirit world” through “mediums” can be shown by biblical authority to go against the will of God.  See the following translations of Hebrew anti-divinatory texts:

 

Lev 19:31: “Do not turn to mediums (obot) or seek out spiritists (yiddeonim), for you will be defiled by them.  I am the Lord your God” (cf. NIV, NRS, NIB, NAS, NAU, RSV [mediums, wizards], NAB [mediums, fortune-tellers], NLT [mediums, psychics]);

 

Lev 20:6: “I will set my face against the person who turns to ghosts (obot) and spirits (yiddeonim)” (KJV, ASV, REB, DRA, BBE, NAB); 

                                                                          

1 Sam 28:3: “Saul had expelled the mediums (obot) and spiritists (yiddeonim) from the land” (NIV, NRS, NIB, NAS, NAU, RSV [mediums, wizards], NAB [mediums, fortune-tellers], NLT [mediums, psychics]); 

                        

2 Kgs 21:6 and 1 Chr 33:6: “He . . . consulted mediums (obot) and spiritists (yiddeonim) and (thus) did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger” (NIV, NIB, NAS, NAU, NKJ]);                                                                

2 Kgs 23:24: “Josiah got rid of the spirits (obot) and wizards (yiddeoni) . . . . This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord” (KJV, ASV).

 

     English Bibles that use the terms “spiritist” and “medium” reflect the practice of a “dynamic equivalent” translation of the text in which translators render the meaning of the original language with comparable modern expressions to facilitate understanding of biblical passages.  For instance, in the KJV of 1611, Deut 18:11 is translated by occult terminology of the time, “familiar spirit” and “wizard,” whereas in the NKJ of 1982 the terms “spiritist” and “medium” appear.  Similarly, the NJB translates 2 Kgs 23:24 by terminology used in contemporary New Age spiritism: “What is more, the spirit-guides and mediums . . . were swept away by Josiah to give effect to the words of the Law.”  The term “spirit-guide” recalls the older identical English term “familiar spirit,” a spirit that was believed to assist or guide the medium with communications from the spirit world.

     Familiar with spiritism in modern popular culture, translators seem to have used present-day conventions they believed to be comparable to ideas found in the Hebrew terminology.  For instance, John S. Bonnel (“The Resurgence of Spiritism,” Christianity Today 12 [1968] 7–10) states that the woman in 1 Samuel 28 known to history as the “witch of Endor” is “nowadays . . . called a ‘clairvoyant’ or a ‘medium’” (p. 8).  The terms “spiritist,” “medium,” and “spirit-guides” reflect older terminology such as “wizard,” “witch,” and “familiar spirit.”  Mediums and spirit guides are condemned by contemporary Christianity on the basis of biblical authority.  During the mid-nineteenth century before English Bibles were using “spiritist” and “medium” in derogatory contexts, Catholicism declared the manifestation of spirits during séances to be satanic in origin: The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, MD (1866) “declares that some at least of the manifestations [during séances] are to be ascribed to Satanic intervention, and warns the faithful against lending any support to Spiritism or even, out of curiosity, seances” (Edward Pace, “Spiritism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia 14. 224).  The classic Catholic stance was stated by Karl Rahner, Visions and Prophecies (QD 10; Freiburg: Herder, 1963)100–01: “Catholics may not take part in spiritualistic conversations and manifestations (Decree of Holy Office, April 24, 1917; Denz. 2182). Thus, the Church forbids seances wherever, and insofar as, such parapsychological phenomena (real or supposed) are sought and are evoked in the hope of communications form the other world (from the dead, or ‘spirits’, etc.).

     Present-day Evangelical Christianity cites biblical support for the view that any dealing with “spirit guides” is demonic in nature.  For instance, John Ankerberg and John Weldon (The Facts on Spirit Guides: How to Avoid the Seduction of the Spirit World and Demonic Powers [Eugene, OR: Harvest Press, 1988]), state, “The Bible instructs man to reject every form of spiritism as something evil and an encounter with lying spirits” (p. 25).  The motivation behind English versions that employ terms such as “medium,” “spiritist,” and “spirit-guides” might, arguably, not only reflect an attempt to show fidelity to the Hebrew text, but also send a message to readers that spiritism, in any age, is prohibited by God.  Steven L. Jeffers (“The Cultural Power of Words: Occult Terminology in the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English Bible” [Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 1989]) states a similar prospect for the translators of the KJV of 1611: “The political function of early English translations to make the complete text of the Bible accessible led to a definite stance on priorities by the translators. . There was a certain intentionality by the translators to communicate particular messages and at the same time remain true to the intent of the original Biblical authors” (p. 243).

     The terms ob and yiddeoni occur in Deut 18:11 alongside the phrase, “one who consults the dead,” while bwa occurs in 1 Samuel 28 as a term for the deceased.  Hence, biblical precedent exists for an association, albeit unclear, between ob, yiddeoni, and necromancy, “divination by the dead” (nekromanteia).  Necromancy was a form of spirit communication practiced throughout antiquity.  The terms ob and yiddeoni might not always refer to spirits of the deceased but rather to spirits that inhabited a spirit world condemned by God that may have included at least a portion of the deceased.

     Studies on spiritism often argue that modern interest in communicating with spirits is a resurgence of the biblical practice of necromancy.  Authors have defined spiritism as a modern example of necromancy.  Some of these studies are lexical, theological, historical, or apologetic.  The texts used to illustrate spiritism are those related to divination, witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy (e.g., Exod 22:18; Lev 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut 18:10–11, and 1 Samuel 28).

     The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) states, “For an account of Spiritistic practices in antiquity, see Necromancy” (Edward Pace, “Spiritism,” 14.221).  In a study originally written as a dissertation at The Catholic University of America in 1917, and later published, Johannes Liljencrants wrote,

 

While the Spiritistic movement is distinctly modern, its essential features are probably as old as the human race. We find them in what is known as Necromancy, or the–at least presumed – evocation of the spirits of the departed for the purpose of divination, practiced in all ages and rather universally, but especially among pagan peoples. . . .  Some of the most prominent features of modern Spiritism are found in the ancient practices of Necromancy (Spiritism and Religion: A Moral Study [Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell, 1918; repr. Cleveland, OH: J. T. Zubal, 1984] 9-11).

 

Scholarly commentaries on Deuteronomy and 1 Samuel use terminology reminiscent of spiritism to denote the similar occult practices listed in Deut 18:11: “one who inquires of a ghost (or medium) or a knowing spirit (or wizard),” and “one who consults the dead.”  John A. Thompson states that in Deut 18:10–11, we learn that “all occult, superstitions, divination, sorcery, spiritualism, etc., were abominations (9,12) to Yahweh and invited his judgment.”  Peter C. Craigie describes vv. 10–11 as “a blanket prohibition of . . . consultation with the spirit world.”  Walter Brueggemann comments that vv. 10–11 refer to practices that “include consultation with ‘the spirit world’ and ‘the dead.’”  P. Kyle McCarter refers to Saul’s inquiry of the necromancer in 1 Samuel 28 as a description of a “séance.” 

     In scholarly articles spiritism and necromancy are sometimes identified.  In the early part of the twentieth century, the British orientalist Samuel Daiches argued in an article, “Isaiah and Spiritualism,” that Isa 28:7–16 was an account of a séance in which v. 10 depicted the utterances taking place during an evocation of the dead.  More recently, Thomas O. Figart (“Saul, the Spiritist, and Samuel,” Grace Theological Journal 11 [1970] 13-29) called the necromancer of 1 Samuel 28 a “spiritist,” recalling terminology related to spiritism.  Johan Lust (“On Wizards and Prophets,” Vetus Testamentum Supplement 26 [1974] 133-42) stated that the terms ob and yiddeoni “belong to the mysterious world of a belief about spirits and the dead, similar to that which can be found in modern spiritualism.”  J. Stafford Wright devotes a section in an article, “The Biblical Assessment of Superstition and the Occult,” Evangelical Review of Theology 4 (1980) 102-13, that assesses the biblical ban on the ob and yiddeoni entitled “The Ban on Mediumship and Spiritualism” (pp. 108-10).  Likewise, in a discussion of necromancy in 1 and 2 Samuel, Bill T. Arnold identifies the necromancer in 1 Sam 28:3–19 as a “spiritist” and defines the terms ob and yiddeoni as “medium” and “spiritist” respectively (“Necromancy and Cleromany in 1 and 2 Samuel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 [2004] 199-213).

     Some scholarly Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias include an entry for “medium.”  The entries include references to the anti-divinatory laws and the terms ob and yiddeoni.  The term “medium” is defined in light of the present-day understanding of spiritism: a human agent who facilitates communication with the dead for the purpose of learning the future (see Julia Bidmead, “Medium, Wizard,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible [ed. David Noel Freedman, et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000] 878).  Vine’s Expository Dictionary explains in its entry for “Demon, Demoniac,” that demons masquerade as deceased human beings by speaking through mediums:

 

As seducing spirits they [the demons] deceive men into the supposition that through mediums (those who have ‘familiar spirits,’ Lev. 20:6, 27, e.g.) they can converse with deceased human beings.  Hence the destructive deception of Spiritism, forbidden in Scripture, Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:11; Isa 8:19 (p. 291).

 

Used in contexts that condemn necromancy and occultism, the term “spiritism” and its fundamental meaning, “consulting spirits,” is identified with practices that are abominable to God in the OT.  Thus, “spiritism,” “spirits,” “spiritists,” and “mediums” are banned under the “law.”  This is driven home where the catalogue of divination and necromancy in Deut 18:10-11 is concluded in v. 12 as “For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord.”

    Such usage of the term “spiritism,” however, elicits an exclusively negative connotation that the term itself does not necessarily convey.  Despite the association of spiritism with biblical necromancy and the common definition of spiritism as communication with “the dead,” a meaning dependent more on present-day popular usage and subjective attitude than upon objective definition, the term spiritism, in and of itself, does not discriminate the type of spirit that is consulted.  Rather, the term designates “a spirit” of whatever kind with the potential for including good spirits.  This was even suggested by the Holy See of Rome who, by a decree of March 30, 1898, “condemns Spiritistic practices, even though intercourse with the demon be excluded and communication sought with good spirits only” (Pace, “Spiritism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia 14.224) (emphasis mine).

     Despite the preponderance of lexical entries that define spiritism as communication with “spirits of the dead,” two entries for spiritism in recent theological dictionaries define spiritism in broader terms.  In his Dictionary of Christian Theology, Peter Angeles defines “spiritism” as

 

The belief in the existence of spirits affecting the real world and/or humanity and that human beings can by specific means such as propitiation, ritual, initiations, etc., come into contact with spirits in order to receive their powers, alter their activity, or communicate with them.  The acts, services, or works produced by a spirit.

 

Likewise, in the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (ed. Donald K. McKim; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) the term “spiritism” is defined as 

 

The belief in spirits that affect the present world and humanity, as well as the belief that humans can come in contact with these spirits and receive their powers (p. 266).

    

According to these definitions, no specific spirit is intended by the term spiritism.  Instead, the “existence of spirits” is the basis for the term and potentially covers the whole range of the spirit world, good or evil.  This reflects the range of “spirit” in the OT.  Hebrew ruach, “spirit,” as it relates to spirit beings is ambiguous.  It indicates either a “good spirit” (1 Sam 10:6,10; 11:6; 16:13, 14a) or a “bad spirit” (1 Sam 16:14b,15,16,23; 18:10; 19:9).  In an article discussing the relationship between modern spiritism and biblical necromancy, Frank B. Lewis observed, “When the biblical writers speak of spirit or of spirits they do not necessarily and always mean the spirits of dead men” (“The Bible and Modern Religions: VII. Modern Spiritualism,” Interpretation 11 [1957] 438-54).  

     Whereas the Hebrew terms ob, “ghost,”  yiddeoni, “knowing spirit,” and metim, “the dead,” are the “spirits” identified with outlawed practices in English translations of the OT, the terms for “spirit” in Hebrew, ruach, and Greek, pneuma (LXX), also suggest, in certain contexts, the presence of spirit beings.  Those English versions that translate the occult Hebrew terms ob and yiddeoni as “spirits” suggest that these terms share the same semantic field with that of the term ruach as a term for “a spirit of God,” indicating that all three Hebrew terms designate spirits of the spirit world.  The nouns ruach and ob, however, do not occur together in the OT.  But an implied association between the two terms occurs in antithetical contrasts found in texts that declare “seek not the ob, but rather the Lord (Yhwh), or God (el)” (see 1 Chr 10:13-14 and Isa 8:19-20).

     As “spirits” that communicate with humans from the spirit world, the terms ruach and pneuma share a similar context with spirits of the dead or divination in the biblical laws.  For instance, both Lev 20:27 and 2 Chr 24:20 depict prophetic activity.  In the Hebrew of Lev 20:27 the ob-spirit and yiddeoni-spirit are “in” (bahem) the man and woman from whom these spirits “speak.” (some English versions don’t make the Hebrew clear and read the spirits are "among" men and women).  Likewise, 2 Chr 24:20 states that “a spirit of God put on Zechariah” after which Zechariah proceeds to speak.  Here, the subject  is “a spirit of God” that “puts on” Zechariah who is the direct object.  The spirit is on the inside and Zechariah is the “garment” on the outside who clothes the spirit.  Hence, the action of Zechariah is that of “a spirit of God” inside of him.

     The LXX version translates 2 Chr 24:20 literally with the Greek verb enduw, “to put on.”  In a similar passage, 1 Chr 12:19, Johan Lust renders this Greek verb, enduw, as “and a spirit of God entered (evnedusen) Amasai.” (see A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint [Part 1 A-I; Stuttgart: Deutsch Bibelgesellschaft, 1992] 151).  Both Lev 20:27 and 2 Chr 24:20, then, depict “spirits” that are either “in” or who have “put on [entered]” a human intermediary for the purpose of communicating.  In the former the spirits (ob, yiddeoni) are condemned by Yhwh in the biblical laws.  In the latter the spirit is a spirit of God (ruach, pneuma) that acts as a source for divine guidance and is the means whereby Yhwh communicates with his people.

     The interpretation of the anti-divinatory laws as a “ban on the spirit world” is misleading in light of the fact that ruach and pneuma designated spirits that were also denizens of a spirit world from which came Yhwh’s communication and guidance through prophetic communication (see Num 11:23; 1 Kgs 22:18-26; 1 Chr 12:19; 2 Chr 15:1; 20:14; 24:20).  A blanket ban on the spirit world would include a ban on good spirits, i.e., “spirits of God,” and such would nullify the activities of “spirit of the Lord” and “spirit of God.”  The fact that “a spirit of God” played an important role in the divine instruction and communication from Yhwh indicates that the spirit  world as a whole did not come under the legal condemnation of the antidivinatory laws.  Both prophecy and divination had a common goal: to communicate with the deity.

     In Deuteronomy 18 reliance on “spirits” and “mediums” (v. 11) is banned in favor of the expectation of “a prophet like Moses” (v. 15).  This shows that only specific practitioners and entities of the spirit world were targeted by the Deuteronomist.  Moses acts as an intermediary for Yhwh in Exod 18:15–16 where the people go to him “to consult God” and learn of “God’s statutes and regulations.”  In Exod 33:7 Moses was responsible for establishing the “tent of meeting,” where, after the preparations of burnt offerings and all of the other meticulous instructions for building and furnishing were complete, Yhwh (a spirit source) would “meet and speak” with Moses and the Israelites (see Exod 29:42–43).

     Human instruments were sometimes necessary for Yhwh to communicate with Israel.  Both 1 Sam 9:9 and 2 Kgs 3:11 attest that “prophets” were required so that the Lord might be consulted “through” them by a third party.  Consultations with Yhwh required media, whether types of divinatory equipment such as a goblet (Gen 44:5), the ephod (Exod 28:6-13), the breastpiece in which were the urim and thummim (Exod 28:15-21,30; Judg 17:5), or humans ( Exod 33:9-11).  Both Yhwh’s and Baal’s prophets were known by the same term, “prophets.”  Despite the fact that the term “medium” is used exclusively in contexts prohibiting occult activity for conjuring the dead or other spirits in English versions, Johan Lust observes that Yahwistic prophets, in their function as human intermediaries, can also be named by this term:

 

The prophets were not only God’s spokesmen, but also the mediums through whom Jahweh was to be consulted (“The Mantic Function of the Prophet,” Bijdragen 34 [1973] 234-50, here234, emphasis mine).

 

Spiritism or “consultation with the spirit world” per se is not condemned in the OT but, rather, condemnation is laid against spirits who were not sanctioned by Yhwh (e.g., ob, “spirit of divination,” or “ghost,” yiddeoni, “knowing spirit,” metim, “the dead,” “Baal,” “other gods,” and “rephaim” or “netherworld spirits”), and this included necromancy.  Spiritism refers to practices covered by terms such as “divination,” “prophecy,” “visions,” and related practices whose objective is to obtain information and guidance from spirit sources.





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